Ethics in the workplace: why bad business is bad for business

Focusing on just profit and loss makes the business environment worse for all concerned

Business schools inculcate an attitude that there is little more imporant than keeping your profits high and your losses low. Maximising shareholder value is the name of the game, and pesky corporate ethics - and even the law, if you think you can get away with it - must be jettisoned if they get in the way. But this isn't just bad for society; it may harm the very foundation on which economics rest.

Although ethics courses are taught in business schools, a recent Bloomberg op-ed by University of Chicago Business School professor Luigi Zingales points out that they are treated very much as secondary subjects, tought by low-ranking professors, perpetuating the idea "that ethics are only for those students who aren’t smart enough to avoid getting caught."

And it gets worse. The overwhelming push to view everything in cold monetary terms leaks into other courses where it is absolutely inappropriate. Zingales writes of a collegue, Gary Becker, who teaches the economics of crime. Comparing the expected value of success to the cost of punishment multiplied by the chance of being caught results in many crimes looking like quite good uses of your time (although not bank robbery, which, a recent paper in Significance magazine showed, only pays around £12,000 while resulting in jail in around a fifth of attempts). But Becker's students took that descriptive model as prescriptive: "They perceived any failure to commit a high-benefit crime with a low expected cost as a failure to act rationally, almost a proof of stupidity," writes Zingales.

It's not hard to see the direct link between the prevailing attitude at business schools and the recent actions of HSBC, which just admitted in a Senate hearing to transporting $7bn from Mexico to the US, ignoring "red flags that the volume of dollars included proceeds from illegal drug sales in the United States". HSBC clearly took a view of the potential profit and loss that could be made by weakening their adherence to money laundering regulations, and decided that the trade-off was worth it, without taking into account the broader societal reasons why those regulations are a good idea.

But even if they decide that it's not the best idea to act criminally, it's still problematic if we have a class of high-powered business people who think that ethics is for weaklings. Focusing too hard on the black and white difference between illegality and legality erodes all the shades of grey between "things you should do" and "things you shouldn't do". You aren't allowed to use slave labour to build your products in Britain, but is that really the only reason you shouldn't? That line of thinking often results in desperate attempts to prove that things which are undesirable are also unprofitable, leading to arguments that slavery is unprofitable, or BP would make more money if they stopped drilling up oil. Those things may or may not be true, but do we really want to base our prescription of how business should behave on changeable facts? If it suddenly became profitable to own slaves – say we find a really good way of making Battle Royale-style control collars – does that make it OK?

The fact is, the general undercurrent of ethics that we all live our lives by does extend to businesses. Any one of us could, if we wanted, steal from a hundred unattended coats, bags and desks every day, but we don't. Nor do we only keep promises when we have signed contracts, or only tell the truth if there is regulation making us do so. Similarly, many businesses have ample opportunities to, both legally and illegally, increase their profit. You can hold off paying invoices until you are served notice, encourage interns to work for free – or pay to work – and just generally be nasty. And while some don't take them, a growing number do.

A survey from "whistleblower law firm" Labaton Sucharow showed that 24 per cent of senior executives in US and UK finance said they believed "financial services professionals may need to engage in unethical or illegal conduct to be successful". We can safely assume that the number who believe that they need to engage in unethical but not illegal conduct is higher still.

But if you end up with a business system where a large proportion of people are acting unethically, then things slowly fall apart. Everyone starts lawyering up, as "verbal contracts" and "gentlemen's agreements" are replaced with real contracts exhastatively negotiated. What were ethical obligations become legal obligations, and where the legal system can adapt fast enough, it jettisons the parts that are holding it back.

Take, for example, the "charity tax". The idea of using the tax system to reward philanthropy is something which, on the surface, makes sense. But then individuals who believe that they have a moral obligation to pay as little tax take advantage of it, the charities commission is forced to crack down on "fake charities" and eventually, pressure hits the government to remove the exemption.

The same pattern happens time and again. The safe-harbour exemption in copyright law is there to enable sites with user-generated content to exist; but it gets abused to justify wilful piracy, and SOPA is introduced in an attempt to remove it. "Carried interest" allows American investors to not pay full income tax on capital gains, but hedge fund managers abuse it to pay themselves tax free, and the "Buffet rule" is suggested. And the BBA allows banks to self-report their rate of borrowing, until Barclays mis-reports their rates for financial gain and ideas for post-Libor regulation involve billion-dollar mandatory loans.

Bad business is bad for business. In the long run, either they tighten up, or they force the law to do it for them.

J.S. Mill, ethicist and philosopher. Could businesses learn from him? Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit